Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Ford Brothers Radio Show Does Not Belong On Public Airwaves

Recently resigned member of Toronto Mayor Ford's executive committee, Paul Ainslie (voted with Ford 80% during this council term) has written a letter to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council asking that the Ford brothers' radio show "The City" on Newstalk 1010 (CFRB) be taken off the air.  It's about time someone in authority made a stink about this.

Naturally defenders of Ford mostly on the right are howling about "free speech."  This is utter nonsense. Our section 2 Charter guarantee of freedom of speech is not at issue here.  The right of a private corporation to subsidize the political careers of ideologically friendly politicians by donations of the public's airwaves is the issue.

"Free Speech" does not entitle the Fords to their own weekly radio show.  I don't have a radio show, are my free speech rights being trampled?

A few months ago, the Globe and Mail had a good background article on this show, which I think was pretty revealing in terms of the station management's motives.  It starts out explaining that originally the show featured a centrist Councillor named Josh Matlow:

Newstalk 1010 hatched The City in the fall of 2011, with centrist councillor Josh Matlow as host because, according to the station’s program director Mike Bendixen, “a lot of our listeners were fed up with just hearing about all the screaming and yelling and nonsense that was happening at City Hall.” Six months later, after an overture by someone on the mayor’s staff, Mr. Bendixen handed the show over to the Fords.
So listener feedback is they're sick of all the screaming & fights, so the station brings on this middle of the road councillor, then someone from the Mayor asks them for the show, and they just give it to the most histrionic and vitriolic pair of politicians in the city?  What?

Right from the start the Fords made no pretense to doing a civic affairs program, like past mayors have done say on cable access TV or such.  This is not fielding constituent calls about potholes and road closures.  The show has been overtly political in support of the Fords' agenda and a megaphone with which to broadcast their views unfiltered.  The station does not even bother with having a host or moderator, giving full control to the Fords.

The usual excuse about free market entities just seeking to make a buck doesn't seem to apply either, as another bit reveals:

Ratings for the show are fine but not exceptional, especially for a time slot with notoriously low audiences. The City pulled a 3.7 share during the winter 2013 rating period: on average, 3.7 per cent of all radios on in the Toronto area were tuned to Newstalk 1010. But, said Mr. Bendixen, “I’m interested in keeping the show on the air as long as they’re interested in doing the show.”
So, ratings are no matter, station management wants the Fords on the air, no matter who listens.

Now, the law is not utterly toothless about this, apparently the CRTC won't allow officially campaigning politicians to have a radio show (at least without equal time to all opponents), but in Toronto, while candidates for office can register Jan 1, 2014, they are not officially "candidates" until they do:
Once the Fords file their paperwork to run, which they have vowed to do next January for the election in Oct. 2014, they will need to step away from the mic. But if they postpone their registration until the last possible moment, in September, there may be little that opponents can do.
Rob Ford has promised to file his paperwork immediately in January.  Doug on the other hand, is now "98% sure he won't run for council again."  How interesting, and why, if that would say, let the Mayor's older brother keep doing a show that amounts to two hours of free advertising for the Mayor every week, well, wouldn't that just be a fortuitious side effect of not registering in January.  And if Doug say, changes his mind in September, and files then, well...

This has to be stopped.  It's unethical and a violation of the principles of democracy which rely on a level playing field for the battle of political ideas.  Large corporations giving away the airwaves we the public entrust them with is not tolerable.

The show has other corrosive effects on Toronto's democracy, as it distorts the ability of the media to even put direct questions to the Fords.  Most politicians are eager for camera and microphone time that they're willing to endure some adversarial questioning, but the Fords don't have to make that trade off.  They (especially Rob) can dodge the media all week, and know they get two hours of completely unfiltered airtime to mouth off.  In fact, other media have journalists doing show recaps on what the Fords say, so even if you don't listen, you can get Ford's "side" of whatever story via your trusty stenographer.

It's the ultimate stop in the access journalism race to the bottom game that observers of US politics should be familiar with.  The Sun's Joe Warmington is infamous for softball interviews with the Mayor, but that doesn't even compete with just handing over the whole medium to the Mayor like CFRB does. 

Toronto, and hopefully the province needs to give these topics more thought.  Ford is exposing large flaws in our systems of accountability and democratic fairness.  Maybe Council needs a formal Parliament style "question period" so at least the city administration would have to face questions from opposing councillors, so that if the media can't get answers from the Mayor, someone can.  Ainslie's letter is a start, but a larger discussion about these topics must go on.

1 comment:

  1. Great post on the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of TO politics; and, the danger of their weekly NewsHock theatre.